Running and other sports can be a great way to improve your fitness, improve your self-confidence and lose weight. But while starting is (relatively) easy, taking this resolution and turning it into a long-term lifestyle change is absolutely not.
We all find our motivation in different ways, but music can be hugely helpful in raising your spirits and heart rate or distracting you from burning muscles. Which is where a really decent pair of headphones can make all the difference.
In this article, we round up our pick of the best running, sports and fitness-focused headphones, and offer general advice (below the list) about what you should be looking for when buying headphones for physical activities – whether you’re connecting to an iPhone or Apple Watch.
Best running headphones
1. Jabra Elite Sport
Jabra’s top-of-the-range Elite Sport headphones are like a super-sporty version of Apple’s AirPods. Like the AirPods, they’re completely wireless, consisting of just two small earbuds that sit inside your ears without any connecting cables at all. However, they’re packed with additional features designed to help you make the most of your workout sessions.
They’re so sturdy that Jabra provides a three-year warranty against sweat damage, so you can really go to town. To ensure that you get a good firm fit Jabra includes three sets of silicon ear-tips for the your inner ear, along with another three sets of foam tips, and three sets of ‘wings’ to hold them in place in your outer ear.
They sound great too – lively and energetic on the higher frequencies to help get you going, but also clear and detailed too. The bass is impressively firm and full for such a small set of headphones, and they can boom when they need to, but without overwhelming or obscuring the higher and mid-range frequencies.
Battery life for listening to music is around 4.5 hours, but Jabra also includes a charging case that can fully charge the headphones twice, giving you a total of 13.5 hours if you’re using them away from home. The earbuds are a little on the chunky size, admittedly, but that’s because they also include a clinical-quality heart-rate monitor and a motion-sensor to monitor your performance during exercise.
The Jabra app throws in a few extra features as well, such as the ability to calculate VO2 – your body’s oxygen absorption – and it can count reps and give you audio tips and advice while you’re working out. It can even help to keep you safe, with a ‘hearthrough’ option that allows you to listen out for traffic and other background noises when you need to.
2. Beats Powerbeats (2020)
This list wouldn’t be complete without a pair of Beats, the headphone range that is designed for Apple users. And the Powerbeats are tailored for all kinds of fitness activities.
For starters, the design includes ear hooks that keep the earbuds nicely secure so you can run with confidence. They also take the weight off making things more comfortable and with four different tip sizes, we found a snug fit resulting in decent passive noise isolation.
If one does miraculously pop out then the neckbud design means it won’t drop to the floor. A new Ambush Special Edition glow in the dark making them great for night runners.
They are only IPX4 rated for splashes and sweat but that’s still enough for the majority of situations. Those happy to go out in harsher weather might want to look for a higher IP rating.
Buttons on the top of earbud are a little awkward but do give you basic playback control. It’s worth noting that the Powerbeats don’t have ear detection so they can’t automatically pause when you take them out.
Pairing is easy thanks to the Apple H1 chip, although you will have to press a button instead of simply bringing an iPhone near like the AirPods. It’s hardly a problem and the chip also means Hey Siri support.
Sound quality is excellent with the booming bass that Beats is known for and is suited to the kind of music usually associated with running and gym sessions. They do still sound good with other styles, though, so you don’t have to be a bass addict to consider these.
Battery life is solid too. They are quoted at 15 hours but we found they could last over 17 when listening at varying volume levels. They charge over Lightning and FastFuel claims to offer 1 hour of playback from a five-minute charge, but we found it to be more like 30-45 minutes.
If you prefer the idea of true wireless earbuds – ie without the wire connecting the two – then you can consider the Powerbeats Pro.
Read our Powerbeats (2020) review.
3. Jaybird Run
Jaybird has produced a number of popular sports headphones over the years, but the Jaybird Run is the first model to go completely wireless, simply consisting of two compact Bluetooth earbuds that sit in your ears with no neckband or any other connecting wire.
They look a little chunky at first, but most of the earpiece sits right inside your ear, just showing the Jaybird logo – which doubles up as a control button – showing to the outside world. They only weigh around 15g, so they’re light and comfortable to wear, and as well as providing different sizes of ear tips, Jaybird also includes two different shapes as well – you get two sets of circular tips, and two sets of oval tips to cater for different ear shapes. There are also four sizes of ‘fins’ to help hold the earpieces firmly inside your ear, so they should stay comfortably in place while you’re pounding the pavement.
Sound quality is really good, with clarity and detail across all frequencies. The bass is surprisingly firm considering the compact design of the headphones, and you can use the Jaybird app to fine-tune the sound for your workouts.
Battery life is around four hours, but – like Apple’s AirPods – the Run headphones include a compact carrying case that has its own battery and allows you to charge them up for another eight hours when you’re away from home. There’s also a fast-charge option that allows you to get an hour of music with just a five-minute charge, and if you buy them direct from Jaybird there’s a 14-day money-back guarantee as well.
4. Bose SoundSport Free
We really liked the Bose SoundSport Wireless headphones that we reviewed last year – and that model is still available at the lower price of £130/$150 if you don’t mind putting up with their little neckband cable – but this year’s SoundSport Free earbuds go the whole hog and ditch the wires altogether.
They might not be the most elegant earbuds we’ve seen – they look like some sort of valve that a plumber might use to fix your boiler – but they’re actually quite comfortable to wear and they sound terrific.
Like most in-ear headphones, the SoundSport Free includes three sets of ear-tips in small, medium and large. However, Bose’s ‘StayHear’ design gives the tips a conical shape that allows them to rest comfortably in your ears without having to jam them in like a cork on a bottle.
The conical design also helps to form a good seal and maintain sound quality – and that’s where the SportSound Free really justify their high price tag. With the earbuds resting lightly inside the ear they still manage to produce a really rich, detailed sound, with a clean, crisp bite to the percussion and attractively firm bass.
They earn their keep in other ways too. One of the problems with completely wireless earbuds is that it’s easy to lose them if they accidentally fall out while you’re charging along at full tilt. However, the Bose Connect app has a ‘Find My Earbuds’ feature – just like Apple’s Find My iPhone – that uses the Bluetooth connection to help you locate the headphones when you need to. They’re also sweat- and water-proof, and the chunky design does at least mean that they’re sturdy enough to cope with life in the great outdoors.
Battery life is around five hours, and the tough little charging case can fully charge the headphones two more times if you want to listen to music at other times when you’re not working out.
5. Sennheiser CX Sport
Sennheiser’s wired OCX 686 headphones are still available, with a price cut to £43/$35 that makes them really good value for money. But it makes sense to go wireless for sports headphones, so the company’s CX Sport model provides a Bluetooth option as well.
The CX Sport hasn’t gone completely wireless, as the earpieces are still connected by a short cable that goes around the back of your neck, and which also houses the battery, microphone and playback and volume controls. However, the headphones still only weigh 15g, so you’ll barely notice them when you’re out running. They feel quite sturdy too, and are splash-resistant and waterproof for outdoor use.
I always have trouble getting in-ear headphones to actually stay in my ears, but the CX Sport provides three different sizes of ‘fins’ that fit into the outer ear to hold the earphones in place, along with three sizes of tips for the inner ear, so you shouldn’t have any trouble finding a combination that gives you a comfortable fit.
Sound quality, as always with Sennheiser, is very good, with a clear, detailed sound, especially on higher frequencies. The bass isn’t as strong as it is on some headphones, but that’s more a matter of taste than anything else.
The relatively low price of the CX Sport means there’s no charging case included, but the six-hour battery life should still see you through your workouts for 2-3 days at a time, and there’s a fast-charge option that allows you to add an hour of battery life after charging the headphones for just 10 minutes.
6. Libratone Track+
Libratone is best known among Mac users for its AirPlay-compatible Zipp speakers, but the company makes headphones as well, and the Track+ is its first shot at designing Bluetooth headphones specifically for sports use.
The designers have done a good job too, as the thick rubber neckband of the Track+ feels really sturdy, and the headphones are rated IPX4 water-resistant, so they’ll be right at home in the great outdoors. They’re slightly heavier than some of their rivals, at 28g, but that means they have room for an eight-hour battery that lasts longer than most sports headphones, and will allow you to continue using them as general outdoor headphones even when you’re not exercising.
You can wear them comfortably for long periods too. Libratone includes three sizes of ear tips, and we were pleased to find that the headphones manage to produce very good sound quality without being jammed right inside your ear. Even when resting quite lightly inside the ear they produced an attractively clear and detailed sound.
The bass could, perhaps, have been a little stronger, but that’s very much a matter of personal taste, and we like the fact that we didn’t have to keep jamming them back into our ears every few minutes the way we often have to with some in-ear headphones.
Another feature that will help the Track+ headphones earn their keep is the CityMix feature, which provides four different levels of noise cancellation. On the highest level, the headphones attempt to block out most of the background noise, which will be useful when you’re travelling on a train of plane. The other levels gradually allow more noise in so that you can hear traffic when you’re out on the streets, or the sound of people talking in a coffee shop.
There’s also an ‘ambient monitoring’ option that pauses your music and actually amplifies background noise so that you can quickly get your bearings and hear what’s going on around you.
7. Denon AH-C160W
Denon is well-known in the traditional hi-fi market for its range of high-quality amps and speakers, and it brings that audio expertise to its AH-C160W headphones.
A standout feature is the frequency response, which digs right down to 5Hz and ensures that these compact little headphones still manage to produce a firm, full bass sound that will work a treat if you like to listen to dance music while you’re working out. The clear, detailed sound will work well with other types of music too, so it’s really just a question of whether you like the over-ear hook design that the headphones use to ensure a firm fit.
Inserting the headphones into your ears and then wrapping the hook over the top of your ear can be a bit fiddly at times, so it might not appeal to everyone, but it does keep the headphones very firmly in place when you’re pounding the pavement. We also like the fact that Denon includes a set of Comply memory foam ear-tips, along with the other four conventional silicon tips, and a handy little carrying case.
Battery life is relatively modest, though, at around four hours, so you’ll need to remember to charge them up regularly. It’s worth shopping around too, as the original price of £149 has now come down to around £100 on a few online stores.
8. AfterShokz Trekz Air
There’s a trade-off with the bone-induction technology used in the AfterShokz range of headphones, including their new top-of-the-range Trekz Air model with Bluetooth.
Instead of inserting the headphones directly into your ear and channeling sound waves into the inner ear, the Trekz Air headphones actually rest just in front of your ear and create vibrations that travel through your cheek bones to your ear drum.
The advantage of this design is that your ears aren’t blocked at all, so you can still hear everything that’s going on around you while you’re working up a sweat. That’s a useful safety feature if you’re jogging near traffic, or if you still want to be able to chat to people at the gym. The downside is that the sound quality isn’t as good as you might get from a conventional set of headphones in this price range.
That’s not to say that the Trekz Air sound bad – they’re definitely an improvement over the Trekz Titanium, with a fuller, more satisfying sound that is perfectly fine for listening to a few tunes while you’re exercising. A little more bass and volume wouldn’t go amiss, but that might distract you too much, detracting from the all-important safety aspect of the headphones.
Battery life is better than some of their sporty rivals too, lasting for up to 6.5 hours on a full charge, and they’re rated IP55 for water and dust protection.
9. Urbanista Boston
The Urbanista Boston headphones have had a bit of an update, replacing the original ear-pieces with a new ‘winged’ design that helps to hold them more firmly in place when you’re moving around. They’ve also got an IPX5 rating for water-resistance – more than enough to cope with a bit of rain if you’re out running in the park – so they’re a good choice for exercise. They’re available in a variety of colours, and our only minor complaint is that the inline controls are a bit high up towards your ear, which sometimes feel a little awkward when you reach up to use them.
Like most sports headphones, the Bostons use Bluetooth for wireless connectivity. Urbanista’s website skirts around the battery life a bit, but Urbanista says that this new model should provide six hours of music playback time. That’s pretty good for a set of headphones in this price range – it’ll see you through a long session at the gym with no trouble at all, and they’ll keep going on the train back home too.
The Bostons will help you along too, as they provide a good, strong bass sound that will really drive you along the pavements. There are other sports headphones that provide strong bass – such as Apple’s own Powerbeats (£170) – but they tend to be pretty pricey. If you shop around you can find the Bostons online for less than £50, making them a good choice if you want some headphones that can get you motivated without spending a fortune.
10. Philips SHQ6500CL
If your exercise headphones are going to take a beating then it might be worth just buying a basic set for your workout sessions and having a separate set for normal day-to-day use. You can find the Philips SHQ6500CL headphones online for as little as £24.99 (we’d suggest Amazon, but it’s the same price at time of writing on Argos), so they won’t break the bank, but they’ll still provide good sound quality to help get you through your exercise sessions.
The design of the headphones might not suit everyone, though. Rather than inserting them right into the ear-canal for a firm fit, the moulded ear-pieces – shaped a bit like a big comma – sit quite lightly on the outer ear, relying on the large rubber fin to hold them in place. This is intentional, though, as the headphones are designed to let in ambient sound so that you remain aware of traffic and other possible catastrophes while you’re running around outdoors. That makes a lot of sense, although some people do prefer ear-pieces that fit more snugly and block out background noise more effectively.
Sound quality is good, though, despite the low price. The way that the ear-pieces sit over the ear means that the bass isn’t as penetrating as it could be, but it’s fine for listening to a few rock and pop tunes while you’re exercising. It’s a clear, detailed sound too, and coped equally well with gentle acoustic songs and some of Queen’s multilayered epics. The 4.5 hour battery life is a bit underwhelming, but the SHQ6500CL headphones will see you through your workouts without costing a fortune.
How to choose running/sports headphones
buying headphones is often simple but when you plan to go running or even use them in the gym, there’s a lot more to think about.
Your headphones are going to be jolted and bounced around more than in civilian life, so the fit needs to be spot on. Headphones with multiple sizes of bud are a good idea. In case the headphones do get jogged out of your ears, some kind of neck attachment may be useful, or the ability to survive a drop. Which leads us to…
You’re looking for something robust and light. And also reasonably water-resistant, to account for sweat and rain. An IP rating like IPX4 is basic splash protection, while IP67 is fully dust and waterproof.
While the headphones might primarily be for audio, some models can also do things like track your heart rate during exercise. That’s pretty handy if you can’t afford a smartwatch for this kind of feature. It’ll likely cost more than a basic pair but could be worth the investment.
This is probably less of a priority than when selecting headphones for home listening pleasure: the sound of traffic may drown out much of the musical nuance in any case. Talking of which, if you’re going to be cycling, or running across roads, consider your safety. Noise cancellation may be a dangerous option if it prevents you hearing approaching dangers so check they offer an ambient mode.
Wired or wireless?
We’ve gone wireless here because, when running, wires are a pain and, well, the iPhone doesn’t have a headphone jack anymore. It also means you can play music from your Apple Watch, which is a plus for fitness activities.
But going for Bluetooth does increase the price tag so you could consider a pair of Lightning headphones, instead.
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